In its search for ice, NASA has set its eyes on the moon’s south pole. The space agency and the business Intuitive Machines revealed this week the Shackleton Crater landing location near the moon’s south pole for a tiny lander slated to fly next year. According to a statement, the site is the Shackleton connecting ridge, and NASA measurements suggest that ice lurks beneath the surface.
NASA’s Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) is part of the robotic mission and requires solar power and a view of Earth for communications. According to NASA, the ridge zone should offer both.
Finding a landing site where we would discover ice within three feet of the surface was difficult, according to Jackie Quinn, PRIME-1 project manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
While there is enough sunshine to power the payloads, the surface becomes too warm to support ice within the PRIME-1 drill’s reach. We sought to identify a ‘goldilocks’ location that received enough sunshine to suit mission objectives while still a safe landing spot with adequate Earth connections.
NASA frames the PRIME-1 mission as an essential step in learning how to harvest resources from the moon’s surface. Later in the 2020s, NASA intends to land a series of extended human missions on the moon, dubbed Artemis. However, NASA contends that for such an endeavor to be sustainable, scientists and engineers must conduct in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), which is the technique of exploiting resources in the immediate environment.
PRIME-1 intends to release a drill known as The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain (TRIDENT), which will seek to penetrate as deep as 3 feet into the surface. The experiment also includes a mass spectrometer, which will measure any gases discovered by TRIDENT from volatiles, which are elements and compounds that may quickly transition from gas to liquid to solid.
NASA will use the “lessons learned” from PRIME-1 to prepare for a more ambitious lunar rover mission, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which will also arrive near the south pole in 2023. NASA revealed in September that VIPER’s landing location would be slightly west of Nobile, a crater near the moon’s south pole.
Other technology demonstration tests will be conducted aboard the Intuitive Machines lander, known as Nova-C. Nokia, for example, will test a space-hardened 4G and LTE network to try high-speed networking on the surface. At the same time, an Intuitive Machines rover-hopper named Micro-Nova will aim to collect images and science data within a nearby crater.
Together with Astrobotic and Orbit Beyond, Intuitive Machines were chosen by NASA for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) project in May 2019. CLPS plans to perform science experiments and technology demonstrations on the moon with the help of commercial firms. When a company is chosen for CLPS, it joins a pool of eligible candidates NASA may choose future missions.
NASA subsequently stated in October 2020 that it would pay Intuitive Machines up to $47 million to bring PRIME-1 to the surface, and Intuitive Machines said in August this year that it would send the lander to space and target it toward the moon using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.